How Fraud Fueled the Mortgage Crisis
The debate over what caused the mortgage mess and how best to fix it is now taking a sharp turn, as new problems surrounding liar’s loans and payment-option mortgages reveal the pervasive fraud, lying and deceit that permeated the market at its height.
As loans made to borrowers with decent credit begin to fail at a surprisingly rapid rate, it’s becoming clear that widespread fraud helped support the entire mortgage system — from borrowers who lied on their loans, to brokers who encouraged it, to lenders who misled some low income borrowers, to the many lenders, investors and ratings agencies that conveniently and deliberately looked the other way as profits rolled in.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Despite its widespread role, fraud hasn’t yet been at the forefront of proposed rescue plans, which center on refinancing people out of loans now resetting to higher rates. That may begin to change as the mortgage market continues a meltdown that seems to have no end. As fraud becomes a focus, the question of who did most of the lying and cheating will be crucial in deciding who deserves help in any housing rescue plan.
And the search for causes of the crisis may challenge long-held but erroneous beliefs about what homeowners did and why. Many people think borrowers got in trouble by buying bigger houses than they could afford, but the numbers show the majority were refinancing their homes.
Fraud problems drew headlines this week, as Countrywide Financial Corp., announced an $893 million first quarter loss and a 36 percent delinquency rate on subprime loans. The lender that once led the subprime market is facing a federal probe involving allegations that sales executives purposely allowed for inflated income figures on many mortgage applications, The Wall Street Journal said Wednesday.
At the same time, delinquency rates are climbing for payment-option mortgages, or adjustable rate loans that allowed the borrower to choose the size of the monthly payment, the Journal said. Countrywide and other lenders are being hit by state investigations and lawsuits from borrowers who contend they were misled into taking out the complicated loans, which sometimes result in monthly payments going up even as house prices decline. Lenders deny responsibility, saying borrowers knew what they were getting into.
The meltdown of these mortgages is prompting a new spotlight on the extensive role that fraud played in loans gone bad, and who was responsible for it. Lending that required little proof clearly opened the door to widespread cheating, by borrowers who inflated their incomes, or by brokers who did it for them, with or without their knowledge.
A landmark study by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute concluded that almost 60 percent of stated income loans it examined were exaggerated by at least 50 percent. “They earned their name,” MARI’s Merle Sharick said of liar’s loans.
Fraud concerns escalated recently when a task force of states attorneys general and the Conference of State Banking Supervisors found widespread mortgage fraud at the end of the housing boom. Their report said some 28.5 percent of subprime loans that don’t face even their first reset to higher rates until next year are already delinquent. In addition, some 70 percent of subprime borrowers seriously delinquent on their loans aren’t involved in any effort with lenders to modify the terms to prevent foreclosures. The report urged servicers to work harder on modifications and loan workouts.
At the influential housingwire site, publisher Paul Jackson pointed out that only massive fraud could be responsible for loans going sour so quickly, and that it’s unfair to blame servicers for loan workout problems. Borrowers who may have cheated or lied to get a mortgage aren’t going to be eager to call up their lender. “What incentive to they have?” Jackson asked. “Offering strong and credible proof that they were party to mortgage fraud?”
He represents a growing belief that mortgage fraud is a major problem yet to be recognized in the housing mess, and one that has been overshadowed by the attention to adjustable rate mortgages that reset to higher rates. Until the scope of the fraud is understood, adequately addressing the market’s troubles isn’t possible, according to Jackson:
It’s time borrowers, consumer groups and erstwhile working groups stop floating a revisionist history of the “hapless borrower” — you know, the one where greedy, mean lenders duped those innocent and pure borrowers? — as a substitute for what’s really going on in the real world.
Others familiar with the mortgage industry contend that pervasive fraud was, indeed, a problem – on the lender’s side. At the peak of the housing boom, they say, the nation’s mortgage system was set up to promote and encourage outright fraud in order to close a loan – and everyone, from brokers to loan officers to Wall Street, looked the other way. Borrowers also were put into products like payment-option arms that were unsuitable — and lenders knew it. “They were pushed like Vioxx, with very little regard for their dangers,” said Kathleen Keest, senior policy counsel with the Center for Responsible Lending, a research group that investigates predatory lending.
Patrick Madigan, an Iowa assistant attorney general who has investigated mortgage fraud, said it makes no sense to conclude that lenders are somehow victims. Madigan’s office engineered a settlement two years ago with Ameriquest over its subprime practices, including high-pressure “boiler room” sales tactics. Regardless, Madigan said, there is a movement to “blame the borrower.”
“There’s a perception out there that there’s this hapless lender who got duped by middle class and lower income subprime borrowers,” Madigan said. “It’s ridiculous. Our investigations have shown that most of the fraud happens at the suggestion and direction of the loan originator, who had significant financial incentives to close the loan, no matter what misconduct was required.”
The question of fraud and responsibility matters because it can tilt the direction of any plans to rescue the housing market from its freefall. So far, the largest government effort has been FHA Secure, which is supposed to help subprime borrowers facing higher rate resets get refinanced into new mortgages. But with loans going bad even prior to their rates going up, the program doesn’t address fraud as the true cause of failing loans, noted Robert Simpson, president of Investors Mortgage Asset Recovery Co., in Irvine, Calif. “These problems are not related to reset issues,” he said. “That’s a ruse.”
As the debate over bailout plans continues on Capitol Hill, borrowers perceived as victims of predatory lending might be more likely to be seen as sympathetic and in need of help than borrowers who took part in lying to buy an expensive house. Lenders under pressure to modify more mortgage loans might get themselves off the hook a bit if borrowers take the hit for lying on liar’s loans. If lenders are looked at as the perpetrators of fraud, there might be support for ideas like the one just proposed by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp Chairwoman Sheila Bair, who wants the Treasury Department to make loans directly to troubled borrowers.
If the whole mortgage market is viewed as riddled with fraud on both ends, some, like Simpson, argue that nothing should be done except letting those house prices that have been artificially propped up because of inflated incomes begin to fall — and enduring the economic pain that will result.
Even if fraud has become a larger part of the mortgage meltdown picture than first realized, it’s not simple to figure out who should take most of the blame. Many people point the finger at investors playing the market or homeowners who bought more expensive houses than they could afford — the “irresponsible” borrowers cited by both President George W. Bush and probable Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
But the numbers don’t exactly tell that story – which proves that much in this crisis taken as fact is poorly understood. That also makes a difference, when it comes to deciding whether it makes sense to bail out the market. At the request of The Washington Independent, the trade industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance in Bethesda, Md., ran some numbers and analyzed the resulting data.
Did most people simply buy big homes they couldn’t afford? In 2007, 62 percent of all securitized Alt-A loans involved refinances, and 38 percent were for home purchases. In the subprime market, 64 percent were refinances and 36 percent, home purchases. The percentages were the same in 2006. Those borrowers may have been tapping equity for reasons as varied as fancy vacations to overdue medical bills, but the majority were not buying new homes.
Were they just trying to make a quick buck? Regarding investors versus homeowners, in 2007, about 5 percent of all securitized subprime loans and 14 percent of Alt-A loans were reported as investor loans. That compares to 5 percent of subprime loans and 13 percent of Alt-A loans in 2006. These numbers don’t include second homes, so the percentages are probably higher, but not significantly so.
Then there’s the question of who really lied on the liar’s loans. Madigan, the Iowa assistant attorney general, cites repeated cases where borrowers were encouraged by brokers to suddenly create businesses in their basements, like day care centers, to boost their incomes. If they questioned it, brokers would say that lenders required it, or not to worry. Still, borrowers signed on the bottom line, some knowing the information was false. Consider this borrower’s account in the San Francisco Chronicle of a sales conversation with a broker:
” He didn’t say anything illegal out loud,” she said. “He didn’t say ‘lie,’ he just made a strong suggestion. He said, ‘If you made $60,000, we could get you into the lowest interest level of this loan; did you make that much?’ I said, ‘Um, yes, about that much.’ He went clickety clack on his computer and said, ‘Are you sure you don’t remember any more income, like alimony or consultancies, because if you made $80,000, we could get you into a better loan with a lower interest rate and no prepayment penalty.’ It was such a big differential that I felt like I had to lie, I’m lying already so what the heck. I said, ‘Come to think of it, you’re right, I did have another job that I forgot about.’”
Countrywide, for example, had a loan program called “Fast and Easy” that required no pay stubs, tax forms or employment verification. The FBI investigation is finding extensive fraud on loans across the board at Countrywide that didn’t require full documentation, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“It really is a case of everybody’s at fault on this,” said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. “There’s clearly plenty of blame to go around.”
The result is a housing market that still has a long way to go to reach the bottom. A report by Barclays Capital on Tuesday warned that half of all subprime and Alt-A borrowers soon could owe more than their homes are worth — meaning delinquencies are likely to increase, regardless of whether some loans reset.
How those delinquencies will influence the politics of any possible mortgage bailout is anyone’s guess, especially as fraud and its part in the meltdown begin to draw more attention. As Cecala points out, finding the right people to blame can be a complicated issue. In some ways, he says, “it’s just next to impossible” to solve a crisis that so many had a hand in creating. whether they are willing to admit to it or not.